French Open 2011: Murray, Federer and Djokovic cruise
The box-office names took to court in Paris with some stylish wins - and a few complaints
It seemed, as the 2011 French Open got under way, that it may be the tennis balls that stole the headlines when the sun went down on opening Monday.
They were still yellow and fuzzy but they were distinctly different from the ones used at the French Open last year and -more importantly -were different from those used at the other clay tournaments.
Roger Federer was irritated not so much by the change from Dunlop to Babolat but by the fact that there had been no discussion about it.
Novak Djokovic said: “The balls are very, very fast, so it’s really difficult to control.”
Andy Murray didn’t mind the balls but was still unimpressed: “It probably helps me because it’s fast, but I’d rather we played with the same ball during the clay court stretch.”
The organisers put the performance of the little golden spheres down to the dry weather -and the general consensus has certainly been that they are playing fast, flying high from the court and taking a bit less spin than expected.
Maybe when the rain arrives in Paris -as it is scheduled to do on Thursday -the players and the balls will settle down.
But fast or slow, new or old, the balls made little difference to the quality of tennis produced by Federer -a classy and stylish straight-sets win over fellow all-courter Feliciano LÃƒÂ³pez -and Djokovic, who lost just six games in beating Thiemo de Bakker. And both men had more to celebrate than their quality tennis.
For Djokovic, this was his 40th successive win, and it reaffirmed the extraordinary accuracy and pace he is currently producing from every part of a tennis court.
For Federer, it marked the start of his 46th straight Grand Slam tournament and the first since Wimbledon 2003 where he had not started as the No1 or 2 seed. He, too, made a strong statement of intent with 40 winners, signing off his 29th win of the year with his 12th ace of the match.
Number 13 seed Richard Gasquet also enjoyed the “fast” balls in one of the most attractive matches of the day. Playing the old-school tennis of the 32-year-old former top-10 player, Radek Stepanek, Gasquet brought all the flair and attack to this match that beat Federer and then almost took a set off Nadal in Rome.
The Frenchman, who has only won four matches at Roland Garros since his debut here in 2003, looks in his best form -both in tennis and confidence -since he burst onto the stage as a teenager.
He is slated to meet Djokovic -or Juan Martin Del Potro, who took four sets to get past the serving of Ivo Karlovic -in the fourth round, and that would be a treat indeed.
Another veteran of the tour also broke new ground. World No10 Mardy Fish reached the second round after three successive first-round exits in Paris, though he conceded a long tie-break second set in the process. His draw looks pretty favourable as far as the fourth round, too.
But the headlines, as Tuesday got under way in the French capital, belonged to two of the 21 French men in the draw. The first, opening proceedings on Suzanne Lenglen, was the 29-year-old wild card Eric Prodon against Andy Murray.
Prodon had never played in a match that had gone to five sets in his 11 years on the pro circuit, but he rose to this particular occasion by pulling back from a 2-4 deficit in the first set, though Murray broke again to go 6-4.
Prodon then summoned the doctor and looked decided groggy as he began the second set, and played very lack-lustre tennis to lose it 6-1.
In the third, however, Murray lost concentration during a patch of excellent drop-shot tactics from his opponent, and Prodon went 3-1 up.
It was the kick Murray needed to refocus and he began to find some powerful serving and forehands to streak through the next five games, taking the match 6-1.
Of all the French in Roland Garros, however, the one least expected to progress was probably the 31-year-old Stephane Robert, ranked 140 in the world. He had never won a main draw match here, nor defeated a top-10 opponent, nor won a five-set match, but that did not stop him achieving all three in one go.
His victim, last year’s semi-finalist Tomas Berdych, looked in cruise control after taking the two opening sets, 6-3, 6-3, but then the world No6 lost his concentration -a problem the tall Czech seemed to have put behind him in reaching the semis in Paris and the final at Wimbledon in 2010.
The Frenchman, buoyed up by vociferous support from the Court 2 crowd, began to produce some outrageous and uninhibited forehands to pull the match level.
Berdych dug in and began to find his own game again, but -as the commentary team put it -he was not in control of his own destiny. Roberts continued to fire off unreturnable forehands down the line and took the final set, 7-5.
Another seed to exit, though less of a surprise, was the 20-year-old Milos Raonic -playing in his first French Open -who showed his lack of clay experience in losing to a man 10 years his senior, Michael Berrer, in four sets. Also out are Michael Llodra, Marin Cilic and, a rather bigger shock, Nicolas Almagro.
There are others yet to play their first-round matches -and no doubt some more comments to come on the speed of those Babolat balls -but already, the 2011 French Open is hotting up